Outside of the great bookstores in my beloved Minnesota, there’s only one store at which I’ve signed for every single novel I’ve written—the Mystery Book Store in Omaha. Owner Kate Birkel began the store in 1995, and now, after more than twenty years, Kate is preparing to close her doors. Urban renewal is the culprit and who can fight city hall?
Kate and I go way back. The first signing I did as a published author was at Kate’s store. We were both new enough to the business that neither of us had any idea where an author was supposed to put the inscription and signature. So from her shelf Kate pulled a signed edition of a novel by Miriam Grace Monfredo and opened it up. Ah, the title page, of course!
Like many a bookseller, Kate has survived by the skin of her teeth. But she’s had a loyal clientele, folks who’ve attended all the signings, including mine, so that I’ve come to know them pretty well.
Kate’s planning on closing the store this fall, on September 30. I’m not letting her go quietly into retirement. I had already set up a signing at the Mystery Book Store for my next novel, Manitou Canyon, on September 17, the store’s last official author event. I’ve decided to use the occasion to throw Kate a “Goodbye and Thank You” celebration.
Consider this an invitation to attend. If you’re an alumnus of Mayhem in the Midlands, the wonderful Omaha mystery conference (now defunct) where Kate sold books, a long-time customer, a friend of independent bookstores, or just someone looking for a good time, I’d love to see you there, to help celebrate the spirit of independent booksellers everywhere, and of Kate Birkel in particular.
Looking back on some favorite memories from 2015…
March: I stopped for a couple of days in Oklahoma to visit family here. Here I am beneath a statue of Standing Bear, the great chief of the Ponca Nation, all of whom were exiled at bayonet point from Nebraska. When Standing Bear attempted to return to his home to bury his son, he was arrested and put on trial. In its favorable decision, the court declared that Standing Bear was, in fact, “a person” and had rights, the first legal acknowledgement of such. One small step for Standing Bear, one giant leap for all indigenous people.
In Sedona, my favorite place outside Minnesota, for a little R&R. Love hiking among the red rocks here. And the sunsets, are they amazing! For those of you who know Sedona, this shot was taken on the trail to Chicken Point.
April: I visited Ireland with my wife and sister. We’d been advised to enjoy the “bright spots” in the weather—good advice, as it turns out that conditions change about every ten minutes. The last time I was here was over forty years ago, on my honeymoon. Still a stunningly beautiful island. For those who are fans of the great John Ford—John Wayne—Maureen O’Hara 1951 film “The Quiet Man”, here I am in Conga, the village where the movie was filmed, giving the Duke a hand hoisting his co-star.
May: Preparing to end (reluctantly) my time in Ireland. This photo was one of the last taken during our stay. My wife shot it on the shoreline of Cork Harbor, just outside Cobh, which was the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic. She thought she was capturing only my image. Look closely and you can see that we weren’t alone.
June: Here I am, deep in the Grand Canyon, rising at dawn, to raft the Colorado River. Nothing like the cold splash of whitewater rapids first thing in the morning to wake you completely to nature’s glory and your own human frailty.
Tomorrow, I’ll drive almost three hundred miles to present a program at a library in Ponca, Nebraska, a town with a population of less than a thousand people. At a recent signing, a guy who’d seen the event calendar on my website asked me, as if I was crazy, “Why would a New York Times bestselling author bother to go to a small burg like that?” The line of people waiting to have books signed was long, so I gave him a quick, rather flip answer: “Because they asked me.”
Really, it’s a question that deserves a more considered response.
These days I do about a hundred book events every year. A very large percentage take place in small libraries in rural communities. Towns with names like Vinton, Black River Falls, Spirit Lake, Eagle Butte, Hallock. Places most of you have never heard of and most generally with populations less than five thousand. Places that take me several hours to reach, often by backroads. Although I have a pretty good following and reputation, it’s not uncommon to discover that some of the folks who are there have never heard of me before. They come because having a real live author at their library is an event as rare as a two-headed calf.
So why spend all this time and energy, which might be channeled instead into writing more books, visiting places that are barely even dots on a map? Part of it is, in fact, the flip answer I gave the guy in the signing line: I do it because I’m invited, and I have a difficult time saying no. Part of it is that I usually ask for an honorarium. It’s a pretty modest amount, all things considered, and I donate every cent of it to the Native community in Minnesota. Part of it is that I can never resist an opportunity to talk about myself. But at heart, the reason is that I believe there’s no better mechanism for ensuring a free and democratic society than our public libraries.
Libraries are nothing less than the archives of our culture. These are the places that house the books that guide us to an understanding of who we were and where we came from, help us make sense of who we are now, and maybe point the way to who we might become. When our libraries and librarians are gone, with them goes everything we are as a people.
Free and open access to knowledge is an essential right in a democracy. Keeping our libraries alive and vital is as important to our freedom as anything spelled out in our Constitution.
So I drive thousands of miles every year and hope that in this way, maybe I’m helping the health of libraries, maybe giving back a little of what, over my lifetime, they’ve given me. But I confess, that another reason I go is that an event at a rural library is often accompanied by a potluck supper. And who can resist a good Midwest potluck?
I’ve been getting a lot questions about Magna Cum Murder, the wonderful mystery conference in Indianapolis next fall at which I’ll be a guest of honor. Because it’s both intimate and vibrant, this conference is a perennial and special favorite of mine. Kathryn Kennison, the lovely moving force behind everything, has been staging this gathering for twenty years, attracting top authors from around the world. I’ve been on panels with Michael Connelly, Charlaine Harris, Anne Perry, Val McDermid, and Tess Gerritsen, to name just a few. And Indianapolis is a lovely city, with a lot to offer new visitors. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’ve never been to Magna Cum Murder, I really think this is the year you ought to give it a try. I’d recommend registering soon, because the conference hotel, which is the Columbia Club, always fills quickly. It would be great to see you there this October!